Just because our kids grow up doesn’t mean we stop being their parent. We still want to protect and guide them and watch them make all the best decisions for a happy, fulfilling life. But how much intervention is too much intervention when it comes to their romantic relationships? One mum asks: “What do you do when you know that your adult child and their significant other are not a good match?”
Dear Parental Advisory,
My son is 20 and going into his third year of college as a music performance major (jazz), and his girlfriend of 1 year is 22 and in her final (fifth) year of a double major in college for music education and opera. My son has a history of ADHD, depression and anxiety. Apparently his girlfriend also has some of these issues and takes medication.
It’s clear that her family is somewhat different from ours in temperament, and that has of course influenced her personality. My son is the type of person who would rather stay home and watch shows, order out food and just veg, while his girlfriend does do those things sometimes, but is always cooking something up in her head to do. My son does love a nice sideline of going out and doing things, but not as frequently as she had him doing those things when they got together (and prior to COVID-19). Since COVID-19, she’s been at our house at least 3 days out of every week, as I’d prefer them to be here than to be at her place. She would also prefer to be here.
Some of the differences in short that I have observed are the following:
* She is pushy and he has to work up to asserting himself. I listen in whenever I hear her pushing him and you bet I step in if it seems like she’s pushing too hard. Case in point: She wanted him to go with her (i.e. take her, because she doesn’t drive) to her friend’s get-together in Philly this past weekend. There would have been a bunch of strangers there and Philly has higher cases than the suburbs where we live. He really did not want to go and she kept trying to convince him. If someone is hiding under a cover to avoid you, you should probably stop pushing them! He says he has been asserting himself more, and they did not end up going (on the advice of her mum, ultimately, as she trusts her mum from a medical perspective because she is a physical therapist), but I found the pushiness unsettling. It’s not the first time it’s happened.
* She is very picky with food, eats a particularly unhealthy diet, and wants to eat out all of the time. He has grown up eating what we make, eating leftovers whenever viable (as we usually have a fridge full), and making sure he’s had fruit or vegetable most meals. Moderate eating is our thing, and he gained a bunch of weight when they were first together. He says he has lost some now, which I can see, because he’s starting to speak up when he doesn’t want to eat that crap. She comes here and is so picky, sometimes she orders something instead of eating what we’ve made. She’s also not keen on leftovers, which is an ENTIRELY different story from a financial perspective.
* Speaking of financial perspectives, she likes to spend money and buy clothes, etc. He likes to spend money on his hobbies, but generally has very few “wants” and understands the meaning of frugality, as we raised him that way. I’ve reminded him many times that he does NOT have to say yes to all of the Broadway shows, escape rooms, vacations and shopping that she wants to do. He, again, has started resisting, but I feel like it shouldn’t have been this hard from the get-go. To her credit, she does do a lot of sales, Groupon, etc, but the volume of things she buys almost makes up for the money she saves.
* She constantly talks about how we “wear our hearts on our sleeves” and that he is “more of a bleeding heart” than she is. My son LOVES, absolutely ADORES, animals and cares deeply about people. She cares about people, but not as much as he does. We love and celebrate wildlife, all dogs, cats, any animals. My son watches kitten rescue videos, for crying out loud! She is only marginally interested. She does care about people, too, but the thing with the animals makes me concerned since he has such a huge heart for them.
* He has recently helped her (and continues to) move her things out of her shared apartment, as the school year is over and she won’t be living there next semester. With all of his messiness — and he is TERRIBLY ADHD messy — he actually told her, and I quote, “If we ever live together, our place isn’t going to look like this!” Her mess must have been WAY offensive if even he commented on it!
* She snores and keeps him awake and he’s always exhausted after she leaves here.
I don’t dislike her as a person, she’s just very different than he is, and I worry about the stress it puts him under. She does lots of things for my littler kids (planning games, projects, and nice gifts for their birthdays and occasions), but in my experience, the other differences are difficult to overcome. I would know, as I am divorced from his Dad for many similar reasons. I think my ex is a great person, but we couldn’t live together.
I have discussed this with him in a gentle fashion towards the goal of his health and well-being, and giving advice that might improve things. He is generally very receptive to my advice, and we have a great relationship. However, I’m not sure if I’m advising too often or not. I don’t do it incessantly, and I mostly wait for situations to come up, which I then comment on. He’s pretty used to me not keeping my mouth shut, though, and I do try to sprinkle in compliments about her or upbeat praise for the things she’s doing/interest in her endeavours to balance it out.
The ultimate point here is that it is difficult to watch a relationship play out that you know is not likely to work out in the end and that makes you, as a parent, uncomfortable. I try to take the perspective that this is a learning experience for them, and every learning experience is important. I just don’t want to see him get “stuck” in this relationship.
Dear Concerned Mum,
I considered trimming your letter down a bit for space but I think the level of detail you give is important in shaping my answer, so I’ve left it intact. The first thing that really strikes me is that, as an outsider looking in, it actually doesn’t seem like your son and his girlfriend are all that different.
They’re both studying to have careers in music. They both have a history with challenges related to ADHD, anxiety and depression, which I imagine they have likely connected over. They’re both messy, she’s just messier. They both have things they like to spend money on, but she likes to sped extra. They both care about people, but he cares more.
Even the things you describe as bigger challenges, such as him being more of a homebody and her wanting to go out more, don’t necessarily have to be deal-breakers. When a homebody and a social butterfly get together, usually the homebody goes out a little more than they’d like and the social butterfly stays home more than they’d prefer. It sounds to me like they’re figuring out where those boundaries lie, and in the specific case you illustrated, they ended up staying home as he preferred. (And I really think it’s fine if she’s not totally head-over-heels in love with cats; that can be his thing.)
I understand that the case you’re building is not one of deep relational dissatisfaction or disfunction — I’m not reading anything here about infidelity or abuse. If that were the case, it absolutely might be appropriate or necessary for you to step in, voice your opinion or offer help. But what I’m reading is more about compatibility, and compatibility is subjective. It very well may be that your son has determined that some of her more desirable qualities — perhaps the thoughtful way she treats his siblings, for example — outweigh the fact that she likes junk food and she snores.
Maybe they find some of their differences to be endearing or are even what attracted them to each other in the first place. Maybe there is a part of him that wants to be a little more social and likes that she challenges him in that way. Maybe the fact that he loves animals so much is something she admires, even if she isn’t animal-obsessed herself. It’s ok for them to be a little different, and it’s ok for them to have to learn to compromise.
Their relationship is under too much of a microscope right now. And I know part of that is because he lives at home with you and she is over more frequently now because of the pandemic. If she’s badgering him about something like going to Philly, it sounds like you tend to home in on the conversation and wait for the right moment to jump in. What if you tried to do the exact opposite? If they’re bickering over something and it’s getting on your last nerve because she won’t let up and he is literally ducking under a blanket, head to another room. Turn on some music and get started on dinner or take a relaxing bath. I know that won’t be easy. I know you want to help and that you’re coming from a place of love, but I also think your involvement could be adding to the very stress you’re trying to alleviate.
You mention that you and your ex-husband divorced for many of these same reasons. That very well might mean you can spot a train that will eventually derail — or your own difficult, painful experiences might have you looking a little too closely for warning signs. Either way, my advice would be the same: Keep loving your son. Keep being kind to his partner. And be the person they — and especially he — can turn to if he needs advice, if he wants advice.
Because he really is not stuck in this relationship. At least for right now, he is choosing to be there. And if he and his girlfriend are ultimately just not a good match, he will have to come to that realisation in his own way and in his own time.